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Sylvia Browne’s Biggest Blunder

News & Comment

Ben Radford

Volume 31.3, May / June 2007

The tragic consequences of listening to psychic advice were brought into sharp focus in January 2007, when yet another psychic vision from Sylvia Browne was revealed to be wrong. Several years ago during one of her many appearances on the Montel Williams show, Browne told the parents of missing child Shawn Hornbeck that their son was dead. His body, she said, would be found in a wooded area near two large boulders. Furthermore, according to Browne, Hornbeck was kidnapped by a very tall, “dark-skinned man, he wasn’t Black, more like Hispanic,” who wore dreadlocks.

According to a spokesman for the Hornbeck family, following the Montel broadcast Browne tried to get money from the family: “She called Pam and Craig about one month after the show and pretty much offered her services to continue their discussion for a fee. Pam was that desperate that if she had had $700 in her bank account she would have put it on the table. We are talking about a mother who would have sold her soul to have her boy back.”

In fact, Hornbeck and another boy were found very much alive January 16, 2007, in the home of Michael Devlin, a Missouri man accused of kidnapping them. Hornbeck had been missing for four years, but his parents had not given up hope of finding him despite Browne’s misinformation. Devlin, a Caucasian, is not Black, dark-skinned, nor Hispanic and almost certainly did not have dreadlocks at the time he allegedly abducted Hornbeck.

Within days of Hornbeck’s recovery, critics such as James “The Amazing” Randi spoke out against Browne. CNN’s Anderson Cooper featured Randi and gave refreshingly skeptical (and harsh) coverage of the case, calling attention to Browne’s highest-profile failure to date. Browne, in a statement posted on her Web site, responded to the criticism, stating that “I have never nor ever will charge anyone who seeks my help regarding a missing person or homicide. In these cases I choose to work strictly with law enforcement agencies involved to aid and not impede their work and only when asked. To be accused of otherwise by James Randi and others like him is a boldface [sic] lie. . . . If the brilliant scientists throughout history had a James Randi negating every aspect of their work, I doubt we would have progressed very far in medicine or in any technology. . . . I cannot possibly be 100 percent correct in each and every one of my predictions.”

Yet her documented track record is one of nearly 100 percent failure rate instead of 100 percent success. Browne’s confidence in her body of work is baffling, and her claim that her flawed visions were “one human error” is an amazing understatement.

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Benjamin Radford is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author or co-author of six books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is The Martians Have Landed: A History of Media Panics and Hoaxes. Radford is also a columnist for Discovery News and LiveScience.com.